The Old Man on the Top of Manor Hill

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about a lonely old man.

Submitted: November 28, 2011

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Submitted: November 28, 2011

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The Old Man on the Top of Manor Hill

 

I.

Mr. Wiloughby lived on the top of Manor Hill on the outskirts of Livingston, Massachusetts.  He lived alone and it had been that way for the past twenty-five years, ever since his wife Margot dropped dead in the front yard while pruning the rose bushes along the wrought iron gates.  Since then the six bedroom, four bath tudor mansion the two inhabited had become completely entwined by dark green vines and half masked by a large oak tree that sat in the middle of the yard.  Such ungraceful appearances of a household were disproved of in the Old Money neighborhood of Manor Ridge and sadly, like the outside of the tudor mansion, the widowed Mr. Wiloughby grew to be ignored.  That didn’t stop the stuffy community of Manor Ridge from discussing the trials and tribulations they supposed existed within the mysterious house.  The Richmond family, who lived three mansions down the road, liked to whisper gossiping tales at the dinner table frequently in the evenings.  Mrs. Richmond held the belief that Mr. Wiloughby was so distraught by the loss of his one true love that he now withered away, painfully, in his giant mansion alone.  Richard Richmond Jr. would argue that Mr. Wiloughby was dead.  And if anyone entered the house they would smell a scent so foul their noses would bleed.  Mr. Richmond, on the other hand, didn’t give a damn what had happened to Mr. Wiloughby as long as he hired someone to trim his hedges.  He was sure that the branches reaching out from the iron gates and over the sidewalk were a breach of neighborhood conduct, if such a thing existed.  But while these vapid discussions of the fate of Mr. Wiloughby flew from one neighbor’s ear to the other, the truth was slightly less engrossing.

It was a cold, windy Tuesday night around 8:30 P.M. in Livingston, Connecticut and Thomas Jacob Wiloughby the III sat in a plush red, velvet armchair in front of his fireplace.  The flames reflected in Thomas’s dark brown eyes were dancing large and menacingly this evening.  He sat with his legs crossed, book pressed against his lap, and his arms wrapped by the dark blue satin robe embracing the arms of the chair.  Not many individuals had graced this room in the past years but it was definitely a larger number than the Richmond’s supposed.  There was the milkman of course, sometimes the mailman would bring him packages and Mr. Wiloughby hired a young lady to buy his groceries once a week..and well that was about it.  But nonetheless, Mr. Wiloughby retained the fact that he was not a withering, lonely old man.  Well, at least he didn’t believe that he was withering... not completely anyway.  

After gazing long and hard into the burning embers, attempting to conjure up some new project to satisfy his time, Thomas conceded his aims and turned his eyes away from the fire.  He looked up from the fireplace at the photograph above his mantel.  There sat his late wife Margot and him standing above her, majestically placing one hand on her shoulder.  That was how Margot imagined their marriage, one large showy picturesque moment.  He grimaced when he remembered the to do she made about making him look as dapper as he seemed to look in that photograph.  Thomas had never been one to fuss over shallow appearances but Margot took pride in his looks as she did all other aspects of their household.

Thomas forced his gaze away from the photograph, to keep himself from being lost in nostalgia.  Instead, he pressed his cricking knees to come to a stand and walked across his parlor to the study down the hallway.  His joints cracked as he steadied himself through the dark mahogany doors of the study.  A stranger would have been either impressed or awed by the wall display that Mr. Wiloughby was heading towards.  Along the left side of this particular study was a wall of glass cabinets-- all filled with polished bronze, silver, aluminum and gold vintage lighters.  The manner in which these collectibles were divided was striking, each with an annotated description of year, model, and historical significance scribbled on small strips of paper below them.  He walked straight over towards the middle of the three glass cabinets and studied the selection.  Tonight, he was feeling particularly reminiscent.  His sleek long, bone hugging fingers turned the silver latch of the cabinet and found their way to a 1944 3 Barrel Zippo in the third row from the bottom.  He picked it out carefully, as not to cause a domino effect of disaster upon his other precious metals.  Then, carrying the lighter lightly in his palm, he swayed over to his desk in the far back corner of the study and opened the top drawer.  From inside he pulled out a wooden cigar box, sat it in the middle of the desk and eased his pelvis down onto the leather desk chair.  Opening the lid, he allowed the smell of rich Cuban tobacco to hit his nostrils.  He ran his fingers along the cigars, from the right to the left, and picked up the last cigar in the container. He rolled the blunt between his forefinger and thumb before cutting off the end with a pair of clippers, raising the cigar to his chapped lips, and lighting the end with the 44’ 3 Barrel Zippo.  

Thomas was puffing his way down the cigar when he heard something unusual for that hour of the evening.  A loud bell was ringing from the front of the house, signifying the arrival of a person at Thomas’s front doorstep.  He thought, for a moment, that his old age was conjuring up this sound, a possible signifier of the dementia he feared was looming around the bend.  But the bell resonated once more through the large house and forced its way into the study, calling Mr. Wiloughby out of his repose.  So, with as much haste as was possible, he pulled his body off the leather chair and walked, slightly crouched, down the main hall towards the front door.  With the passing of each Renoir and Pissarro along the wall, Thomas’s mind was stirring.  He was bitter that the enjoyment of his cigar had been cut short and could only imagine what pestering neighbor most likely stood at the door.  Perhaps someone had come to nag about his unkempt yard.  Along with feeling annoyed, he was extremely apprehensive.  He felt within the pit of his stomach that nothing good would be coming from this late night visit from the outside.

Thomas stretched his fingers around the handle when he had approached the door, preparing himself for what stood beyond it.  Before opening the door, he moved his head up to the curtains covering the glass panel, pulled back the tiniest bit of fabric with his finger and peered his left eye through the glass.  At the exact moment he let his eye adjust to the darkness of the figure standing outside, a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the person standing before him.  Wiloughby was startled by the severity of the flash and the figure.  The light had accented the frame of a tall and lanky stern looking fifty-something year old woman.  She was pursing her lips at the door and seemed to sense his presence, as she pressed her finger against the button on the side of the house.  The bell was very near to Thomas’s ear now and painfully echoed into his skull.  This action made him angry and he pulled open the door resentfully.

“What do you want?” he spat at her.  The woman was not faltered by his bitter tone nor the suddenness of his entry.

“Hello.  Are you..” she pulled a folder up to her semi circle spectacles and read the name at the top, “Mr. Thomas Jacob Wiloughby the III?” She asked, staring him straight in the eyes.

He stared back at the strange woman, his bottom lip had fallen awe-fully from the top.  No one had addressed him as that in over twenty years.

“Umm” He struggled to maintain his composure.  “Ermm yes.  Yes that is I.  And who, may I ask, are you?  And what do you want?”  His anger was beginning to return.  “It’s late you know!  It’s nearly ten o’clock on a weekday..”

She cut him off, “Yes, I am aware that it is late.  I apologize.  But if you are Mr. Thomas Jacob Wiloughby the III then I have something that belongs to you.”  She had an accent of some sort, not quite English but very proper.  She obviously was a well-learned individual.. and very much down to business.

“Something that belongs to me?”  That was impossible.  All of his belongings were behind him in his rarely penetrated cave of a household.  Either that or they had been sold.  “No, I’m afraid that is not possible.  You must have the wrong person,” he grunted and made to shut the door on the woman,  anything to return to his peaceful evening, but she held out a stiff arm and managed quite easily to hold it open.

“I’m afraid that I am not mistaken, Mr. Wiloughby,” she pulled the folder back up to her face “of 5345 Manor Hill Livingston, Massachusetts.  Is that not.. exactly where we are standing?”  She looked around the doorway with her stout face, as if confirming.

Oh, was she an annoying woman he thought.  He didn’t really have a choice but to play along.  “Alright then Mz....?”

“German.  Ms. Natasha German of the Massachusetts Child Protective Agency.”  She held out her hand to shake Mr. Wiloughby’s, who took it apprehensively.

“Well, Ms. German.. what is it that you have that could possibly belong to me?”  He almost laughed out this remark.  Surely, this must be some sort of neighborhood prank.

“If you hold on one moment, I will go get him.”  She turned on her heel and walked back down the cobble steps into the darkness beyond the gate.  Thomas stood frozen to the floor.  What did she mean him?  Where was she going??  He desperately wanted to shut the door on this cold evening and lock himself back in his study, but this woman was persistent (and, frankly, quite intimidating).

As she walked back up the cobblestone stairs towards the door, another figure was forming through the windy darkness outside.  Thomas closed his eyes tightly and then opened them again, to make sure that he wasn’t imagining this sight.  Ms. Natasha German was holding the hand of a little boy, no older than ten or eleven, and bringing him straight towards Thomas.

“Mr. Wiloughby, may I introduce Daniel Morrison.”  The boy kept his eyes glued to the ground.  Natasha began reading from the file, “Daniel is the son of Trudy and John Morrison.  Trudy Morrison being the daughter of your late sister,  Catherine.  Trudy and John Morrison were recently killed in a large highway accident, leaving you the only living relative of Daniel’s.”  Natasha snapped close the folder with her left hand, the right still clasped around the boy’s small fingers.

Thomas was flabbergasted.  He hadn’t heard from Trudy or John in years.. except for the occasional Holiday Cards that always ended up in the trash bin.

“No... this cannot be.. Trudy and John died?  But... no, I cannot be the only remaining relative.  What, what about John’s family?”

“All deceased, I’m afraid.  His parents died a while back and his brother died in a drunk driving motorcycle accident.  I know that this is very sudden and shocking to you, Mr. Wiloughby, but this boy has travelled a great distance to get here.  He has no family, except you.  Now, the state is willing to leave him in your care, if you are willing to accept him.”

Thomas looked down at the boy.  He looked just like Trudy did at his age--sandy brown hair laying wistfully on his head, light brown eyes, and a dimple right in the middle of his chin.  Back when this house was bustling with life, Trudy would spend weeks here in the summer.  He was starting to feel a pinch in his heart that he had long ago extinguished.

Although the boy was stirring up his sympathy, he felt there were things that could not be ignored.

“Ms. German, I understand the circumstances.. but I’m old!  I’m nearing seventy-five .. oh gosh seventy-six this December!  I can’t imagine taking care of.. a rambunctious little boy!”

“Yes, Mr. Wiloughby you aren’t exactly in the prime age range where we typically like to place orphaned children.  However, you are his family and if you decide you don’t want to take on the responsibility of this child then he will most likely be placed in multiple foster homes until he reaches the age of eighteen.  I hate to say it, but the statistics of children living in those types of situations being steered towards juvenile delinquency and drug addiction is very high.  The likelihood of him finding adoptive parents at such a late age are very slim.  He would be much better off with an elderly relative, even if for a slim amount of years, than in that environment.  The decision, of course, is yours.”  She stared back into Thomas’s eyes with intense sureness.  He looked back down at the boy, who still had not lifted his gaze from the ground, and then back at Natasha.

“I..I. don’t know.. it really is such a burden...and I’ve gotten quite used to being alone..”

“Mr. Wiloughby, you are only given a few chances in life to be selfless, truly selfless.  Do you feel as if you have done everything that you possibly could to help the life of another?”  Again, her gazed pierced through Thomas, straight to his guilty conscious.  She was certainly a fierce negotiator.

 

Ten minutes later Thomas was dragging Daniel’s suitcase behind him, leading him to the one bedroom on the first floor.  Daniel followed behind, still not speaking a word.  Thomas was relieved to reach the room and place the heavy bag against the wall.  He flipped the light switch on to the grand guest bedroom that Margot had elaborately decorated.  Thomas walked toward the bed and turned to Daniel.  

“Welp!  This is it.  Your new bedroom,” he patted the bed enthusiastically and received an overwhelming response of dust from the covers.  “Oh!” he accidentally inhaled the dust “Yes, well it’s been ..ahem.. a while.. hem.. since I’ve ugh.. cleaned it out,” he managed to cough out.  

Daniel continued to stare at the floor, shuffling his feet around.  Thomas ignored the silence and walked around the room, explaining its uses.  “Over here.. well, you have your dresser.  And over there’s the closet.. and...well, you can figure the rest out can’t you?”  Daniel didn’t respond.  “Sure you can.  Are you hungry?  I don’t have any candy or anything.. I could make you some toast!  Do you like toast?  With some jam and butter?” he asked, hoping for some sort of response to cut the awkwardness.  Daniel shook his head no.  “Well there’s something!  How about I just.. get you some water.”  

Thomas left the room for the kitchen and returned some minutes later with a glass of water and a cookie he’d rummaged out of a holiday gift basket from some months previous.  When he knocked and opened the door Daniel was lying in the far too large bed, fast asleep.  Thomas tip toed, as lightly as a man of his age could, over to the nightstand and placed the water and cookie next to the lamp.  Before shutting the door and switching off the light, Thomas looked back at the familiar shade of sandy brown hair, which not only mimicked Trudy’s color.. but also Margot’s.  The sheets moved up and down, slowly, to the rhythm of Daniel’s breathing.  Thomas watched this motion until the door cracked shut completely and murmured goodnight slightly above a whisper.

 

II.

It had been weeks since the mysterious and intimidating Ms. German dropped off ten year old Daniel Morrison at Mr. Wiloughby’s doorstep.  Not much had changed.  Daniel still only spoke with motions of the head and Thomas hadn’t any clue what lied in the mind of this child.  He continued to talk to himself out loud, as he’d been doing for the past twenty-five years. At first he thought the boy would chime in on his discussions but he was mistaken.  The boy didn’t even acknowledge the madness of the old man had adopted from years of solitude.  In fact, the boy didn’t really acknowledge anything... it was beginning to give Mr. Wiloughby the creeps.  Every morning Daniel would join Thomas in the kitchen and sit at the head of the table, across from Thomas.  He would pull a bowl of cereal towards him and eat in silence until the very last ladle of milk was gone, then clean his dish in the sink and walk over to the sunroom to stare out the window.  It had been so long since Thomas had interacted with children that he wasn’t even sure how to entertain the boy.  During the day, Thomas usually read but there were no books in his library to be enjoyed by a ten year old.  So, he sent out his grocery lady the first week to pick up things that little boys liked to do.. whatever that may be.  She returned with a brown bag filled to the top with comic books, board games, a collection of toy soldiers, adventure books, a tiny green machine with a screen that made a lot of obnoxious noises and packets upon packets of candy.  Daniel wasn’t interested in any of it.  The only thing that he took from the bag of treats was a box of colored pencils and a notepad, but Thomas never saw him use these.  After the first two weeks Thomas stopped noticing the boy entirely and drew back into his usual habits.

One morning, around 10:00, Thomas found himself in the sunroom off the kitchen enthralled in a mystery novel from his Sherlock Holmes collection.  Suddenly, he felt a bit odd.  He pulled his head out from the story and looked around the kitchen.  He let his less than perfect senses adjust.. but realized that he heard nothing unusual.  Actually, he didn’t hear anything at all.  He shook his head and tried to put this uneasiness out of his mind.  While attempting to reconnect to the words on the page, his mind kept straying to the image of Daniel’s sandy brown hair.  Then he thought of the strange silence around him and wondered why he wasn’t making any noise.  Come to think of it, why didn’t he ever make any noise?  And where did he go all the time during the day?  Thomas had been starting to only see him at meal times and this was beginning to unsettle him.  He slapped his book shut and picked his body off of the couch.  He was determined to find out what this boy was up to.  Setting off down the hallway he opened each door with a feverish determination.  Daniel wasn’t in his bedroom or the bathroom across the hall.  He wasn’t in the living room, the study, or any of the rooms upstairs.  Thomas even managed to climb up the tiny staircase into the attic but still there was no sign of Daniel.  “DANIEL!  Daniel!!  Where are you?” he began shouting down the halls.  The hunt had brought him to a level of energy he hadn’t felt in years.  He was walking faster, with more ease, his mind set on this one goal.  Thomas began crawling on the floor of the living room, peering under couches and armchairs.  Still, Daniel wasn’t anywhere to be found.  Thomas was getting worried.He ran to the front door and walked out onto the front step, peering down and around the gates.  No Daniel.  He shuffled back down the painting lined hallway scanning the walls for a hidden crevice or nook that he could miss.  He checked the coat closet underneath the side staircase, he looked underneath each wooden desk in the library, he pulled out a book case from the wall (psychotically thinking he was small enough to wedge himself behind it).  He even shoved his head through the door of the upstairs laundry chute and shouted “Danieeell!!” down into the darkness, but heard no reply except his own echo.  Eventually, he found himself back in the kitchen, examining the room.  His eyes landed on the cabinet behind him and he ran over to it, swinging the doors open “Ah ha!”.  He expected to find Daniel sitting in the cabinet, sneaking licks of Peanut Butter like he figured other boys his age might be doing.  But Daniel wasn’t in the cabinet.  No, Daniel wasn’t even in the large house, despite the many rooms and crevices there were to explore.

Thomas was spent.  He eased himself over to the sunroom and fell onto the couch, exhausted.  He closed his eyes with frustration and fear.  If the boy wasn’t in the house, then where the hell was he?  He relaxed his muscles into the cushions and tried to clear his mind, hoping that some unthought area would pop into the emptiness.  After a long rest, he recognized the failure of this attempt.  Just as he was lifting his body up to call for some help, he noticed something odd past the window.  There was a tree shaking in his backyard, ever so slightly.  But it wasn’t even windy outside.  The sight was curious, but Thomas was apprehensive to lead himself outside.  He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d stepped foot in the backyard.  He liked his walls, the confinement of the indoors.  He edged himself over the the backdoor and peered through the window.  A quaint, rustic table and two matching chairs sat on the outside patio.  Beams of sunlight were shining down on the setting, almost too ethereally.  Margot always had the best taste in furnishings.  This particular arrangement was rusting, but that didn’t stop Thomas from feeling the warm sensation settling in his stomach.  He imagined Margot and he sitting like two pees in a pod, sipping coffee in the crisps mornings.  Without even realizing, Thomas had opened the door and walked over to the untouched table.  He ran his fingers along the rim of the flaking metal, a soft smirk raising his crinkled cheeks from the bone.  How could he have been so afraid of coming out here, this wonderful place of memories?  He looked up around him and remembered his original purpose.  The trees were still shaking slight past the hedges and, although unwilling, he left the patio and walked towards the source of commotion.  When he rounded the corner of a row of Evergreens his jaw dropped at the sight before him.  There, in his own backyard, was a mini house fashioned from twigs and fallen branches.  A door, made from a broken windowpane, had been fastened to frame of branches with knotted twine.  The house couldn’t fit more than two grown men, but it was homely nonetheless.  Thomas slowly crept towards the little fort and pulled open the windowpane door.  He didn’t see Daniel inside but figured it was too dim and lowered his limber body to peek inside.  When his eyes adjusted to the “walls” of the fort he was amazed.  They were covered with drawings, Daniel’s drawing.  Not a hole or twig was untouched by paper and color.  Thomas hesitated at entering Daniel’s private fort but curiosity prevailed, so he squeezed himself through the door.  Strenuously bending over, he made his way over the corner of the room and scooted himself against the far wall.  He studied the pictures around him intently, “So this is what he’s been up to..” understanding finally setting in.  He figured his vigorous search had been worth this discovery but still, Daniel wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Just as this thought popped into his head, the windowpane door swung away from Thomas to reveal a set of confused and alarmed eyes covered by a mop of sandy brown hair.  Daniel and Thomas locked eyes for a couple of moments, neither sure how to handle this awkward moment of discovery.  Daniel tossed a stack of twigs he was holding in his right hand onto the ground and turned to run away but Thomas quickly interjected, “Now, hold on just a minute Daniel!  Come on... come on in here,” Daniel pulled back the door he had begun to close and stared, once again, apprehensively at Thomas.  “Come on in Daniel,” Thomas said as soothingly as possible, “ugh.. why don’t you show me around your place.”  He raised his arms to the walls and looked around.  Daniel stood stagnant for a few more seconds, then crawled into the fort.  He sat himself on the opposite side, next to the door and stared once more into Thomas’s eyes.  They sat for a bit in awkward silence until Thomas determined he would have to speak once more.  “So... these are your drawings...this is what you’ve been doing all this time?”  Daniel nodded in response.  Thomas scanned the walls around Daniel and rested his eyes on a drawing next to Daniel’s right ear of an old man, sitting at the end of a long wooden table, eating a bowl of cereal.  “Is.. is that supposed to be me Daniel?”  He looked from the picture to the boy.  Daniel nodded.

“Wow.  It’s a.. very good drawing.  Looks just like me,” he grinned.  Astonishingly, Daniel returned the smile, which immediately brightened the face that had been so grim since its arrival.  Even the gaps of missing teeth seemed to illuminate.  

“You wanna see another one?” Daniel’s voice was young and raspy, but surprisingly eager to communicate.  Thomas was shocked by his reaction but didn’t address Daniel’s newfound appreciation of dialogue.  

“I would love to see another drawing,” the old man confessed to the boy.  Daniel crawled excitedly to the corner and pointed to a drawing three below the one they’d just been examining.  This one was also of Thomas, sitting in the living room on the couch, reading.  Sitting next to him in the picture was Daniel’s depiction of himself, drawing a picture within the picture.

“That’s really nice Daniel. You are really talented.”

“Thanks,” Daniel replied hoarsely.  They returned to silence, much like the past weeks.  Thomas wanted to ask, knew it needed to be addressed, but was struggling with the appropriate words.

“So ugh.. did your.. How’d you learn to draw like that?  Did your... ehem... did your parents teach you?”

Daniel stared down at his fiddling hands, then said, “Yeah.. my dad taught me how to draw” his face turned somber again with the thought of his father.  Thomas wasn’t sure what to say to ease the tension that had been created.  He looked over at the drawing next to the one of him and Daniel and noticed another man, slightly younger, smiling back at him.  He decided to press on, hoping to break through Daniel’s silence into understanding.

“Is that your dad right there Daniel?” He pointed at the drawing.

“Mhm”  Daniel also studied the picture and smiled widely, at the memory, “That’s what he looked like most of the time.  Unless he was angry... then he looked like this..” he blurted out, pointing at another drawing, it was of a small man with frantic red scribbles of colored pencil surrounding him.  Daniel continued to gaze at the picture, proudly and wistfully.

Thomas studied the picture intently, then studied Daniel.  “You know Daniel... I lost someone I loved very much a long time ago.  And I still get upset about it.”

Daniel looked up into Thomas’s eyes, “r...really?  Is it the lady in that big picture?  Was that your wife?” He asked with sudden curiosity.

“Uh huh.  Her name was Margot.  She was my first love.. and my best friend.”  It was surprisingly easy for Thomas to discuss this pain with Daniel.  Having allowed himself to leave the house and feel those familiar sensations of companionship, he decided to share something with a person (however small) that would understand.  Although they were years apart, they were both feeling the same grief.  Thomas was bringing himself down to a level of life he’d long surpassed.  He felt like Daniel, a child who had lost all that they had and was now in a big, unfamiliar place.  Looking at the drawings of Daniel’s memories made him realize why this child was brought here.  Thomas wanted to protect Daniel, like he would have his wife and his child, if he’d had one.

“You want to hear a story?” Thomas asked, raising his brows.

“Sure.” Daniel replied point-blankly.

“Well, 50 years ago I met the most beautiful woman.”  His eyes glazed over as he started to reveal the story he’d been holding, so furiously, inside.  “Her name was Margot... and boy, could she really brighten up a room, Daniel.”

Daniel situated himself back in front of Thomas and adjusted his ears at full attention.  He watched the old man melt back into nostalgia and warm himself with his memories.  Outside the fort, stood the old forgotten mansion, continuing to decay.  Somewhere down the road the Richmonds, Danaughues, Johnsons, Murpheys all sat in their large equally vacant mansions discussing trivial neighborhood matters.  None of which mattered, or would ever matter to the old man and the boy sharing memories underneath the trees.


© Copyright 2017 Danielle Bryan. All rights reserved.

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